Most people can’t say No

I think that many people don’t say "No" enough. I think they do this not because it’s the optimal strategy, but because they want to avoid discomfort. I think this behaviour is damaging, often morally wrong and almost always symptomatic of deeper character problems.

What do I meant when I say that many/most people are reluctant to say "No"? A few examples I’ve seen regularly:

  • Not saying "No" to hanging out and instead generating excuses
  • Not saying "No" when asked if you enjoyed a food/activity/film/book
  • Not saying "No" when asked to do overtime
  • Not saying "No" when a friend/family member asks for help (e.g: money, staying over)

Why is not saying no a problem? I think there are two main reasons: dishonesty and doing things you shouldn’t/don’t want to do.

On dishonesty. Most white lie "No"s do not qualify as lying because the person being told the white lie knows it is one. Still, theres a difference between lying (an intentional attempt to mislead) and being dishonest (saying things you know to be untrue). White lies are not lies but they are dishonest. That’s less bad but still bad.

Why is dishonesty bad? I’m not sure. I can imagine that on a case by cases basis maybe some degree of dishonesty is good. Telling people you’re happy to see them. Smiling when you don’t feel happy. Etc… Still, I feel an instinctive dislike. I guess that’s for two reasons:

  • It’s still manipulating others, which is bad
  • I think there’s something dangerous about normalising dishonesty for yourself, about habituating yourself to it. I think the natural state of human beings is one of preference falsification, conformity and dishonesty. I think it’s good to have strong norms against these kind of behaviours and easy to slip and fall away from those norms and regress into a natural state.

Other than dishonesty, I think not saying no is a problem because it also leads to a lack of assertiveness. Most people are highly agreeable. Hence for most people it is good to train disagreeableness, at least to the extent that they can become able to go against others or groups when it is warranted. A simple maxim for me has always been "If you can’t say no to a cinema trip, you wouldn’t say no to driving the train to Auschwitz". It’s extreme and sounds silly but I think it’s true nonetheless.

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